In a neighborhood where signs in front of every other restaurant advertise traditional Haitian favorites like lambi (long-stewed conch) and soupe joumou (meat-packed pumpkin squash soup), the Lunch Room is more than just a little bit different. The soup at this pleasant, if eye-poppingly bright green, indoor/outdoor cafe in Little Haiti is seaweed and tofu-packed Japanese miso; seafood specialties are dishes like Thai chili grouper.

And if you're looking for a liquid lunch, look elsewhere for the Rhum Barbancourt. The alcoholic quaff of choice is sake.

Chef/owner Matilda Apirukpinyo is no stranger to odd locales. In the mid-Nineties the tiny dynamo helmed Thai Bistro, a lovely oasis on the most stubbornly gentrification-resistant block of South Beach's Washington Avenue. Despite dynamite critical word of mouth, few diners discovered the spot in its barely two years of existence. A storefront next to the adult entertainment theater Club Madonna just wasn't a place serious foodies would seek out for world-class Thai cuisine.


The Lunch Room

7957 NE 2nd Ave, Miami; 305-722-0759. Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

After a year-and-a-half in an equally unlikely location — in the rapidly gentrifying Upper East Side, but still a few very long and uninviting blocks from the yuppie residential enclaves east of Biscayne Boulevard — the Lunch Room, too, remains one of Miami's best-kept secrets, despite knowledgeable neighborhood fans like chef Michele Bernstein. Apirukpinyo has thus downsized, eliminating the sushi selection still touted on the cafe's takeout menus.

But there are still tasty cooked Japanese dishes, including a deep-fried crunch roll: a rice-free maki of salmon and shrimp rolled in seaweed, coated with light tempura batter. Just don't try to order this item as takeout. "It loses its crispiness," says the perfectionist chef, who's also the order-taker/server. She refused our order, firmly, upon learning our office was a ten-minute drive south. "No good."

No matter. The roll couldn't have been better than a budget-price bento box, featuring a subtly spiced stir-fry of custardlike tofu cubes and fresh veggies; two flavorful spring rolls with an outstanding hot/sour dipping sauce; rice; miso soup; and a pile of edamame (piquantly salted soybeans) higher than most South Florida hills. The box contained more than twice the amount of food found in most Japanese eateries' combo lunches.

It's the equally supersize (and nicely priced) Thai dishes, though, that are the place's real forte. The menu's more basic than Thai Bistro's was, but includes what might be Miami's best pad Thai. Worlds away from the usual sticky-sweet Americanized stuff that swims in oily reddish ketchup-spiked sauce, the Lunch Room's charmingly chewy rice noodles (adorned with ample white-meat chicken chunks, plus bits of fried egg and scallion) are flavored delicately with tangy-sweet tamarind. It's simple and perfect, just like pad Thai is meant to be.

The chef's sure hand with her native nation's complexly balanced spicing is even more evident in the Thai chili grouper, three large, lightly battered filets with red pepper strips in a mouthwatering tangy/sweet/hot sauce. Heat-seekers will also enjoy the spicy shrimp salad, nine perfectly cooked, humongous prawns atop a lettuce and tomato salad; the dish is dressed with a tongue-tingling chile vinaigrette that makes even the boring iceberg lettuce seem stimulating. And a more subtle heat warms the luscious Thai basil-tinged sauce bathing slender slices of light violet-skin Asian eggplant (which cooks up tender, but firmer than standard black eggplant).

Realizing that some prefer Asian food for dinner, when the Lunch Room is closed, Apirukpinyu offers subscription "cantina" service: preordered mobile meals ($8.99 for an entrée and two sides meant for one, though the portion actually serves two or three). These are ready for pickup in the late afternoon or early evening. But with another eight subscribers, says the chef, she'll hire a delivery person, so neighbors needn't venture farther than the distance between couch and front door. Unlikely location and all, this is one neighborhood restaurant that qualifies as a neighborhood jewel.

7957 NE 2nd Ave, Miami; 305-722-0759. Open Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.


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